Meditation and Effective Altruism

With the aim of be­ing a good effec­tive al­tru­ist, I’ve tried to think what would be the most valuable posts I could write for the com­mu­nity and this one was top of my list. This is be­cause med­i­ta­tion is a free tool that can be prac­tised by any­one, at any time and in any place to help us in­crease our im­pact in the causes we pri­ori­tise. Below are four main ways med­i­ta­tion can do this backed by meta-analy­ses and key stud­ies, an out­line of an effec­tive way to med­i­tate and an­swers to some com­mon ques­tions. I hope you find them use­ful 😊

Re­duces nega­tive men­tal states

Med­i­ta­tion re­duces nega­tive men­tal states, in­clud­ing stress, anx­iety and de­pres­sion and, there­fore, also lessens the chances of ex­pe­rienc­ing burnout, a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for EAs try­ing to max­imise their im­pact. In 2016, a meta-anal­y­sis of 21 fMRI stud­ies and seven MRI stud­ies re­ported that med­i­tat­ing for 8 weeks led to de­creased stress cor­re­lat­ing with de­creased cell vol­ume in the amyg­dala, the part of the brain which in­duces the “fight or flight” re­sponse and pro­duces feel­ings of stress, fear, anx­iety and ag­gres­sion.

Re­gard­ing anx­iety and de­pres­sion, in 2014, re­searchers at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity performed a meta-anal­y­sis of 19,000 cita­tions in­clud­ing 47 tri­als with 3,515 par­ti­ci­pants and found that an 8 week med­i­ta­tion pro­gram “ap­peared to provide as much re­lief from some anx­iety and de­pres­sion symp­toms as what other stud­ies have found from an­tide­pres­sants.”

The act of prac­tis­ing med­i­ta­tion it­self also en­courages views in the mind which re­duce nega­tive men­tal states. Med­i­tat­ing effec­tively in­volves mak­ing note of what is be­ing presently ex­pe­rienced in the mind and pas­sively ob­serv­ing how such emo­tions arise, change and fade rather than hold­ing onto them or push­ing them away. When this abil­ity has been de­vel­oped through med­i­ta­tion it can be used when nega­tive men­tal states arise in daily situ­a­tions as well.

Med­i­ta­tion also helps min­imise ex­cess pro­lifer­a­tion in the mind, which can of­ten in­volve far more dis­com­fort than the situ­a­tion it­self. If you feel ex­hausted, un­well, fear­ful, dis­re­spected, swamped with work or are ex­pe­rienc­ing phys­i­cal pain, these ex­pe­riences may give us some dis­com­fort, but the thoughts we have about these cir­cum­stances can hurt much more. Th­ese are the thoughts that say things like “I’ve had enough”, “This feels hor­rible”, “This is to­tally un­fair” or “I can’t take any more of this”. In med­i­ta­tion, when thoughts come up you ac­knowl­edge them briefly and re­turn to your breath­ing. Strength­en­ing this abil­ity means you can set aside such ex­cess pro­lifer­a­tion when it oc­curs and thereby sig­nifi­cantly re­duce the dis­tress you feel.

Im­proves bod­ily health

Med­i­ta­tion has many pos­i­tive effects on the phys­i­cal body al­low­ing us to func­tion more effec­tively for longer through­out our lives. A 2018 study of 58 peo­ple with Stage 1 es­sen­tial hy­per­ten­sion by the Ben­son-Henry In­sti­tute found that 13 of 24 par­ti­ci­pants who un­der­went 8 weeks of med­i­ta­tion “ex­pe­rienced a clini­cally rele­vant drop in blood pres­sure – that is, spe­cific re­duc­tions in both sys­tolic and di­as­tolic blood pres­sure read­ings that moved par­ti­ci­pants be­low 14090 mm Hg, the clini­cal defi­ni­tion of stage 1 hy­per­ten­sion.” The re­searchers also wrote that “the changes in gene ex­pres­sion as­so­ci­ated with this drop in blood pres­sure are con­sis­tent with the phys­i­cal changes in blood pres­sure and in­flam­ma­tory mark­ers that one would an­ti­ci­pate and hope to ob­serve in pa­tients suc­cess­fully treated for hy­per­ten­sion.”

A meta-anal­y­sis was con­ducted in 2014 by The Univer­sity of New England on how med­i­ta­tion af­fects the length of telomeres, the pro­tec­tive pro­tein com­plexes in our chro­mo­somes which help to re­duce DNA dam­age and cell death. Short­ened telomeres have been linked to dis­eases re­lated to ag­ing, in­clud­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, can­cer, Alzheimer’s and di­a­betes. The meta-anal­y­sis found that med­i­ta­tion re­sulted in bet­ter main­te­nance of the telomeres. The re­searchers as­serted that this is be­cause “med­i­ta­tion prac­tices may pro­mote mi­totic cell longevity both through de­creas­ing stress hor­mones and ox­ida­tive stress and in­creas­ing hor­mones that may pro­tect the telomere.”

Boosts pro­duc­tivity

Med­i­ta­tion is an ex­cel­lent tool for in­creas­ing pro­duc­tivity. A study from re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton in 2012 found that in­di­vi­d­u­als who had un­der­taken 8 weeks of med­i­ta­tion were con­sis­tently able to con­cen­trate on a task for longer and performed fewer task switches than those who had not. This pa­per also found that the med­i­ta­tors con­sis­tently showed sig­nifi­cant im­prove­ments in mem­ory for the tasks they performed as well. A 2015 meta-anal­y­sis of MRI stud­ies on med­i­ta­tion’s effects in the brain sub­stan­ti­ates these find­ings by re­port­ing that med­i­ta­tors ex­pe­rience in­creased ac­ti­va­tion in ar­eas of the brain linked to con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory.

A 2019 study from New York Univer­sity also re­ported a sig­nifi­cant re­duc­tion of fa­tigue in par­ti­ci­pants who prac­tised med­i­ta­tion for 8 weeks com­pared to their non-prac­tis­ing con­trol group. Fur­ther­more, a 2013 study from Brown Univer­sity con­firms this by find­ing that med­i­ta­tion pro­motes “greater wake­ful­ness and lower sleep propen­sity, es­pe­cially as prac­tice pro­gresses”.

Stud­ies have also linked med­i­ta­tion to in­creased im­mune func­tion such as a 2003 pa­per from The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in which in­di­vi­d­u­als hav­ing un­der­taken an 8 week med­i­ta­tion prac­tice pro­duced sig­nifi­cantly more an­ti­bod­ies when in­fected with in­fluenza than the con­trol group of non-med­i­ta­tors. The study also re­ported “sig­nifi­cant in­creases in left-sided an­te­rior ac­ti­va­tion, a pat­tern pre­vi­ously as­so­ci­ated with pos­i­tive af­fect, in the med­i­ta­tors com­pared with the non­med­i­ta­tors” and that this “ac­ti­va­tion pre­dicted the mag­ni­tude of an­ti­body titer rise to the vac­cine.”

There is ev­i­dence, too, that med­i­tat­ing makes it eas­ier to learn new skills. A 2014 meta-anal­y­sis of 123 brain mor­phol­ogy differ­ences from 21 neu­roimag­ing stud­ies in just less than 300 med­i­ta­tors showed in­creased grey mat­ter in the hip­pocam­pus; the part of the brain deal­ing with our abil­ity to learn. This area of the brain is also re­spon­si­ble for our mem­ory pro­cess­ing and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion, sub­stan­ti­at­ing points made above.

Devel­ops more compassion

Med­i­tat­ing is likely to make peo­ple more al­tru­is­tic and to in­crease the joy they feel in acts of giv­ing. This is be­cause it in­creases grey mat­ter in the Tem­poro-pari­etal Junc­tion, the area of the brain where em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion origi­nate along with our abil­ity to see events in per­spec­tive as shown in a 2011 study from Har­vard re­searchers at Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal. This is fur­thered by a 2014 meta-anal­y­sis of how med­i­ta­tion im­pacts health and well-be­ing which shows that med­i­ta­tors ex­pe­rience more com­pas­sion for oth­ers and them­selves than pas­sive con­trols.

In this way, med­i­tat­ing is likely to make in­di­vi­d­u­als more dis­posed to giv­ing time and money to help oth­ers and take more mean­ing and satis­fac­tion in do­ing so. This in­crease in com­pas­sion is also use­ful for com­bat­ting com­pas­sion fa­tigue, which is par­tic­u­larly rele­vant for those EAs work­ing di­rectly with those they are seek­ing to help.

How to meditate

The most effec­tive way to med­i­tate I have found is the fol­low­ing from Ajahn Chah, a promi­nent monk from the Thai For­est Tra­di­tion whose dis­ci­ples cur­rently teach med­i­ta­tion in more than 300 branch monas­ter­ies globally.

“Say to your­self, ‘Now I will let go of all my bur­dens and con­cerns’. You don’t want any­thing that will cause you worry. Let go of all con­cerns for the time be­ing.

Now fix your at­ten­tion on the breath. Then breathe in and breathe out. In de­vel­op­ing aware­ness of breath­ing, don’t in­ten­tion­ally make the breath long or short. Nei­ther make it strong or weak. Just let it flow nor­mally and nat­u­rally. Mind­ful­ness and self-aware­ness, aris­ing from the mind, will know the in-breath and the out-breath.

Be at ease. Don’t think about any­thing. No need to think of this or that. The only thing you have to do is fix your at­ten­tion on the breath­ing in and breath­ing out. You have noth­ing else to do but that! Keep your mind­ful­ness fixed on the in-and out-breaths as they oc­cur. Be aware of the be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end of each breath. On in­hala­tion, the be­gin­ning of the breath is at the nose tip, the mid­dle at the heart, and the end in the ab­domen. On ex­ha­la­tion, it’s just the re­verse: the be­gin­ning of the breath is in the ab­domen, the mid­dle at the heart, and the end at the nose tip. Develop the aware­ness of the breath: 1, at the nose tip; 2, at the heart; 3, in the ab­domen. Then in re­verse: 1, in the ab­domen; 2, at the heart; and 3, at the nose tip.

Fo­cus­ing the at­ten­tion on these three points will re­lieve all wor­ries. Just don’t think of any­thing else! Keep your at­ten­tion on the breath. Per­haps other thoughts will en­ter the mind. It will take up other themes and dis­tract you. Don’t be con­cerned. Just take up the breath­ing again as your ob­ject of at­ten­tion. The mind may get caught up in judg­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing your moods, but con­tinue to prac­tice, be­ing con­stantly aware of the be­gin­ning, mid­dle and the end of each breath.

Even­tu­ally, the mind will be aware of the breath at these three points all the time. When you do this prac­tice for some time, the mind and body will get ac­cus­tomed to the work. Fa­tigue will dis­ap­pear. The body will feel lighter and the breath will be­come more and more re­fined. Mind­ful­ness and self-aware­ness will pro­tect the mind and watch over it.

We prac­tice like this un­til the mind is peace­ful and calm, un­til it is one. One means that the mind will be com­pletely ab­sorbed in the breath­ing, that it doesn’t sep­a­rate from the breath. The mind will be un­con­fused and at ease. It will know the be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end of the breath and re­main steadily fixed on it.

Then when the mind is peace­ful, we fix our at­ten­tion on the in-breath and out-breath at the nose tip only. We don’t have to fol­low it up and down to the ab­domen and back. Just con­cen­trate on the tip of the nose where the breath comes in and goes out.

This is called ‘calming the mind’, mak­ing it re­laxed and peace­ful. When tran­quillity arises, the mind stops; it stops with its sin­gle ob­ject, the breath. This is what’s known as mak­ing the mind peace­ful so that wis­dom may arise.

This is the be­gin­ning, the foun­da­tion of our prac­tice. You should try to prac­tice this ev­ery sin­gle day, wher­ever you may be.”

FAQs

Med­i­tat­ing makes me sleepy. Am I do­ing it wrong?

Peo­ple of­ten feel sleepy in med­i­ta­tion when they are new to it. This is to­tally ex­pected and doesn’t mean you’re do­ing it wrong. After all, feel­ing sleepy is a nat­u­ral re­sponse to clos­ing your eyes and stay­ing still for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time and this goes away quite quickly with con­tinued prac­tice. Fol­low­ing this short pe­riod, med­i­ta­tion is ac­tu­ally likely to give you more en­ergy than you would usu­ally have as shown in the New York Univer­sity and Brown Univer­sity stud­ies men­tioned above.

How can I med­i­tate when my mind is think­ing so much?

Again, this is en­tirely nor­mal. Re­mov­ing all thoughts from your mind is not the goal of med­i­ta­tion be­cause you’re set­ting your­self an im­pos­si­ble task that is likely to frus­trate and dis­cour­age you. The best ap­proach is to no­tice the thought and then re­turn your fo­cus to your breath­ing. Every time to you do this, you are de­vel­op­ing your abil­ity to fo­cus on the pre­sent rather than on men­tal pro­lifer­a­tion.

Do I need to sit cross-legged on the floor?

There’s no need to do this to get the benefits of med­i­ta­tion. For peo­ple who aren’t nat­u­rally very flex­ible (in­clud­ing my­self), this is likely to cause pain, dis­com­fort and pins and nee­dles. Sit­ting in a chair is perfectly ac­cept­able and, in my opinion, bet­ter for most peo­ple as it is more com­fortable, al­low­ing you to fo­cus more on en­joy­ing your med­i­ta­tion.

How long un­til I ex­pe­rience the benefits?

Med­i­tat­ing is un­likely to pro­duce in­stant benefits, but over time it can pro­duce all the benefi­cial effects listed above. From my own ex­pe­rience if you prac­tice med­i­ta­tion daily for at least ten min­utes you can start to ex­pe­rience benefits af­ter about 21 days to a month. Some peo­ple might feel dis­cour­aged by hav­ing to wait this long, but a helpful way to think about this is like your job. You don’t get paid ev­ery day you go to work, but we are happy to do it be­cause we know at the end of the month we are go­ing to reap all the re­wards of our efforts by re­ceiv­ing a to­tal pay-out. The first month of med­i­ta­tion is like this, if you put in the effort you will get the big re­wards.

Any ex­tra ques­tions?

If you have ques­tions, please feel free to ask in the com­ments and I will do my best to give an an­swer that can help.